As Don Draper on Mad Men, Jon Hamm made his name playing a man pretending to be someone else. In the Sundance film Marjorie Prime, the Emmy-winning actor took it one step further, playing a hologram simulacrum of another man.
The film, from writer/director Michael Almereyda and based on a play by Jordan Harrison, takes place in a near future in which artificial intelligence has been infused into common household appliances. And instead of looking at old photographs or home movies of lost loved ones, people can buy stunning holograms that look, talk, and — eventually — act just like the deceased. Hamm plays the hologram of Walter, the late husband of a mourning woman named Marjorie (played by Lois Smith), and spends much of the film navigating the tricky task of being not quite human.
“I remember thinking, I didn’t want to be doing the Robot 2000 bleep blorp voice,” Hamm told Inverse at the Sundance film festival, laughing. “I made the decision to make him very neutral, because, at the beginning of the film, he is essentially a blank slate.
This is where Marjorie Prime differs from A.I. stories like Westworld and Blade Runner, which are stocked with “fully realized” robot characters who have entire inner lives (or so they think, at least). There are few specifics given about the A.I. hologram technology in the movie, except that the artificial companions learn more about the lives of the people they are meant to be replicating through continuous conversation.
Hamm, as hologram Walter, is stiff when he sits, legs crossed and hands on his lap; this position becomes the default setting for each new hologram. He has a measured and even tone, and patient — almost patronizing — smile.
The only other time Marjorie Prime indicates visually that the A.I. characters are holograms and not humans is when things pass through Hamm’s body. And even these moments are subtle — Robbins angrily throws a whiskey at Walter, who doesn’t flinch as the boozes passes through his face. For those listening for audio hints, the only indication was the lack of any sound at all.
“When they move around, you never hear their clothing rustle,” the director revealed. “And that took some work in the soundtrack. I think that’s a more subtle psychological change, because everyone else rustles.
That was about as far as they could take it, as per the original playwright’s instructions.
“We tried to keep the differences minimal, or subtle, and the actors were playing versions of themselves that were becoming more human as they go,” the director said. “I didn’t want them to be conspicuously robotic, and Jordan Harrison had that in his notes on the play. The actors were told, you’re not androids, you’re learning to become human, and you’re good at it, so there should be something really seductive and charming about them.
That’s one of the more compelling parts of the film, which only has four main characters (Marjorie’s daughter Tessa is played by Geena Davis, while Tim Robbins plays Tessa’s husband). While Hamm plays the real Walter in a few flashbacks, we mostly see him as the hologram, slowly adapting to the things he’s learned and the way the world he inhabits has changed. He is suddenly the most educated character, and the vehicle for the stories — and lies — he was told earlier in the movie.
“By the end of the film, he’s been around a lot, and he’s significantly more evolved, as much as a sentient hologram can be,” Hamm says. “He’s got a sense of humor a bit; he wants to write music, so all of that was a fun challenge to hopefully communicate.”